Reformation Study Bible (2015 edition, ESV)

694400_1_box (1)Let me begin with the written content in the Reformation Study Bible (2015 edition, ESV).  The essence and flavor that arises out of this study bible are not only reflective of the Reformation era, but it is also clearly Reformed in theology and doctrine.  The study notes (or apparatus on the bottom), the introductions for each of the biblical books, the theological notes weaved throughout the study bible, and the topical articles placed at the end of the bible, are all beautifully set.  From cover to cover, I can say that the RSB is an attractive bible.  The symbol of the burning bush stands out and makes a statement.

Some of the theological notes are from the General Editor, Dr. R.C. Sproul, who is a passionate and effective teacher in the Reformed tradition (and from whom I’ve learned much from via audio/video/books).  The contributors to the RSB (2015) are respected theologians.  The editors: Associate, Old Testament, and New Testament and contributors have made a great effort in making the Reformation Study Bible a success. I think it’ll make a lasting impression and will be a go-to bible for this generation of Reformed-minded students of the Word.

I hadn’t used any previous editions of a Reformed study bible, but as I started reading more, I gradually became more impressed with the notes.  As I perused through some of the theological notes, I looked for a few anchoring points of Reformed theology. One example: under “Perseverance of the Saints” states: “The doctrine of perseverance does not rest on our ability to persevere, even if we are regenerate. Rather, it rests on the promise of God to preserve us,” and is followed by quoting Philippians 1:6 (p.1994). This is clearly covenantal interpretation so if you love covenant theology, you’ll love this bible for its Reformed-minded commentary and notes (image below: sorry for the poor picture quality I took with my phone)

Another example: under “Effectual Calling” (otherwise known as irresistible grace) states: “Before the inward effectual call of God is received, no person is inclined to come to Him… We see, then, that faith itself is a gift from God, having been given in the effectual call of the Holy Spirit…. Effectual calling is irresistible in the sense that God sovereignly brings about its desired result” (p.2146).

Some of the topical articles in the back and apparatus are not necessarily relevant only to the Reformed-minded, but can also be accepted by traditional evangelicals. The insert of various creeds, confessions and catechisms are definitely Reformed (e.g., Heidelberg, Belgic, Dort, Westminster) with the exception of London Baptist Confession (which is Calvinist).  Well, for those who want a quick-reference to the confessions and Westminster catechisms, it’s conveniently placed near the back of the bible.  In my opinion, I might ask if they’re really necessary, or are they there just to make a statement: “that this is indeed a Reformed study bible!” You decide but I think it might be the latter reason.  Most lay-people will rarely refer to them except for the odd times they want a quick reference (so it’s great for pastors and theological hacks and nerds, like me) 😉

The study notes (or apparatus at the bottom of the pages) are plentiful. I like how the study notes are interlinked to the theological notes. For example, the note for Rom. 3:23 links to the theological note on “Human Depravity”; and the note for Rom. 3:29 links to the theological note on “Predestination”. This makes it useful for the reader to locate expanded thoughts for deeper theological reflection.

Regarding the apparatus/study notes, much of it were from previous editions of the Reformation and Geneva study bibles. There are some updates and additions (however, I cannot compare because I don’t have previous editions).  This 2015 edition has over 1.1 million words in commentary, which has increased from the 760,000 words from the previous 2005 edition.  In the book introductions, what I personally find interesting to read in particular are literary features, Christ’s salvation, and special issues.  Book introductions in study bibles these days are a quicker-fix reference than the long-reads of biblical commentaries (It’s good for lay-people, but for pastors, it’s never a replacement for updated biblical commentaries).  The color-filled maps are very good.  It’s printed on high-gloss paper and is very attractive.

The cross-references in the margins are located a little too close to the inner margins in-between the pages. You’ll need a magnifying glass if you want to read it.  The narrower cross-reference margins leaves more room for the biblical text though so it might have been a give-and-take decision.  It’s a minor issue for me though. Personally, I don’t use the cross-references much anyway.

First on the ESV translation. The ESV has become a very popular translation in the last ten years, and will rival the NIV. Reformed and Calvinist evangelicals tend to flock to the ESV, and I think it’ll be here to stay for at least the next generation of bible readers.  It will also come out in the NKJV later in the fall of 2015.  If I may put this idea out there… just a thought: if Reformation Trust and Ligonier should desires to expand its influence, then why not also include the NIV, NLT and NASB translations?  Including readers of other translations will also expand the readership of the RSB.  I believe Christians need more access to solid, historic, Evangelical theology. Much of today’s evangelicals have access to fluff, and not enough substance.  Good commentary can strengthen traditional Evangelical theology in the minds and hearts of its readers.

RSBhardcoverNow onto some of the physical aspects. When I took the Reformation Study Bible out of the box, I flipped through many of its pages just to take in the all-around aesthetics of it.  I like how the layout appears on the page. I examined the binding and it is definitely Smyth-sewn because it allows you to lay it down flat on the table (unlike cheap glued bindings which don’t allow for this).  Also, when you look down the top or bottom of the binding, you can notice the separation of sections of paper. If the pages were only held together by glue, you would not notice any separation of sections. So this Smyth-sewn pages is a good thing because it’ll be more durable. Moreover, it is also glued for extra strength. I have hardcover so I cannot comment on how the leather is, but it does feel like a sturdy bible that will last.  Most bibles produced today only use cheap glued-binding but this one will be much longer-lasting.  I have to say that this was a good job on this one.  I wouldn’t buy a study bible without Smyth-binding, especially with it being over 2,560 pages thick (which is now expanded from the previous edition of 1,968 pages).

The font size good for me.  It might even be a little bigger than some other study bibles, it doesn’t seem as readable. Perhaps this is due to the contrast of ink-on-the-page.  However, I do see a few places that could be improved for future batches off the press. From a contrast level, the ink could be kicked-up a notch or two. I pulled out six other study bibles just to compare the ink contrast-on-page, and this one had the least contrast. What is most legible are the chapter numbers. The bible paper itself feels thinner than other study bibles. It has about 2550 pages. The paper is not as crisp as the ESV Study Bible’s so it took me more time and care to turn each of the pages. If the ink was any darker, it might bleed through to the other side of the pages. The print itself is definitely on the lighter side, but for my eyes it’s sufficient. Having a desk lamp near to it will definitely help.

This is a study bible that would appeal to many Calvinist-minded and covenant-minded readers and those who desire the traditional evangelical perspective. It will be loved by Reformed-minded and evangelical Presbyterians. I really like this edition. The caliber of this study bible is very good. I would say the Reformation Study Bible (2015 ed., ESV) is up there along with the ESV Study Bible and Concordia’s Lutheran Study Bible (ESV) as my top-three personal choice.  Good job on the Reformation Study Bible.

Thanks to Ashley G. at Reformation Trust Publishing for sending me a copy for review.

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Love Wins: Rob Bell may be an inclusivist but he’s not a universalist

Author: Rob Bell.
Love Wins: a book about heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived” (HarperOne, 2011).

I liked Rob Bell’s Nooma series and have used it, but this book has stirred so much controversy that the evangelical and protestant world is still reeling from the aftershocks.  There was a lot of controversy when it came out earlier this year and I thought: “What’s the big fuss all about?  I’ll have to read it myself.” Many bloggers have already blogged about this so I’m a late-comer adding my two cents worth to this discussion. This is definitely not an indepth review but just a few of my thoughts.

In his book, Bell is trying to simplify the Christian faith by removing, or (and I’ll borrow Bultmann’s terminology) “demythologizing” the theological images of the Christian faith that may be out-of-touch with today’s postmoderns. Take the cross for instance; it was used for capital punishment in the Roman Empire and has become the prominent symbol of the Christian faith for the past twenty centuries. Today, the equivalent of this symbol might be the electric chair or lethal injection in some U.S. states where capital punishment is law.  So why stick with the “cross” terminology/imagery? That’s a good question. Bell’s demythologizing of the cross can be useful and easier to stomach, but his demythologizing of hell has definitely not been welcomed. This is what the fuss is all about. It is heresy to most evangelicals and traditionalists including myself, initially at least.

As an evangelical Christian, I try to simplify the Christian faith as much as possible.  The Christian faith can be as complicated or as simple as one makes it.  Theology can be complex, but a simplified interpretation of one’s theology can make religion a little easier to grasp and take a hold of. Furthermore, simplicity of faith makes spirituality easier to receive and embrace. Perhaps, this is what Bell was trying to do in his book.

Personally, I feel this demythologizing of the cross isn’t as bad as the demythologizing of hell (which was really a garbage dump just outside of old Jerusalem called “Gehenna”).  Most Christians interpret “hell” in the traditional sense of the word.  To many of us, hell is a place of eternal fire and brimstone reserved for the evil one, his demons, and his followers.

To interpret hell as anything other than this would definitely invite accusations of blatant heresy.  Then, it’s no wonder Zondervan rejected Rob Bell’s book.  They knew this would spark such a controversy that it might affect Zondervan in the negative way…and it would have.  Zondervan’s rejection of Bell’s book is a benefit to HarperOne’s benefit….but doesn’t Harper Collins own Zondervan anyway? (In the end, “Harper Wins” 😉 )

Despite these controversies, Bell’s book has, and will, help its readers expand their interpretation of theological ideas and images of the bible with a wider lense.

Personally, I don’t think Rob Bell has become a universalist, as some evangelicals may have accused him of being.  So has all this big fuss gone overboard?  I think so.  His language may sound universalist but I have my doubts whether he has actually converted.  I think he is more of an inclusivist, which is in-between an exclusivist and a pluralist.  He probably leans closer to that of Clark Pinnock’s than Karl Rahner’s; so his theology should still be within the bounds of orthodoxy.   It kind of sounds like he has drawn his theology from Pinnock because he used some similar language.  Now I’m defending Bell.  Where Bell went wrong was his vagueness and lack of clarity in language, which only added to people’s misperceptions of him.  A few of Bell’s statements in his book might be interpreted as universalist, but I think they can also be interpreted as being inclusivist (however, I could be wrong).  But if so, why hasn’t Bell defended himself as an inclusivist or made reference to people like Pinnock?  If Bell is actually an inclusivist, his theology is nothing new; it has been taught for decades by teachers like Clark Pinnock (Baptist), Karl Rahner (Catholic), and others.

On numerous television interviews, and as some of you already know (here, here, plus many more), Bell intentionally avoided answering some questions, for fear of being misinterpreted by his fellow evangelicals.  I am not certain about Bell yet but I am certain that he has not been clear-cut and straight-forward in speaking about his theology of hell as we would like him to be.  He seems to like to keep it vague… and probably intentionally so.  Let’s hope Bell’s theology hasn’t veered too far from orthodoxy.

Thanks to HarperOne for sending me this book to review.

Homosexuality and the Christian

Homosexuality and the Christian: A Guide for Parents, Pastors, and Friends
Author: Dr. Mark Yarhouse
Published by: Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2010.
ISBN: 9780764207310

Before I cracked open the book, I came with the preconceived idea that this might be another one of those knee-jerk reactionary books that Christians write against homosexuality; but after reading the first two chapters, I knew right away that Dr. Yarhouse is a professional who speaks out of the realities of his practice and interaction with his patients-clients.  He is an evangelical who wants Christians, and the church, to respond with compassion and understanding concerning the challenges that go with having same-sex attractions and a homosexual orientation.

Author, Dr. Mark A. Yarhouse, Professor of Psychology at Regent University, and director of the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity, also has a practice in the Virginia Beach, VA area.  Therefore, this book is not just all theory, but is based on his knowledge that comes out of his practice and research.

This is the first book that I’ve read that challenges Christians to take a real close look at research and deal with facts rather than only Scripture.   We all know what Scripture says so the author doesn’t bother going through all that; knowledge of scripture is assumed.  But what most evangelical Christians tend to lack is a proper understanding of the real inner struggles that LGBT experience in society.

This book is divided into three parts.  The first part, in four chapters, discusses a lot of research; a three-tiered understanding of homosexuality; and the struggles that come with SSA and homosexual orientation; and also, if change is possible.  The second part, in three chapters, discusses practical solutions in handling if your child/teen, adult child, or spouse, announces a gay/lesbian identity.  Part three discusses how we are to respond to homosexuality.

I am glad that I have read this book.  It has opened my eyes to a new way of approaching homosexuality with this three-tiered framework.  For most evangelical and traditional Christians, we have been presented with only two options: 1) that homosexuality is wrong and we must reject it outright because it is nurtured; 2 that a person with same-sex attraction (SSA) and/or homosexual orientation was born with it (nature), and so we must accept their orientation.  This nurture vs. nature dichotomy is polarizing and is bound to create heated debates.  Churches are increasingly pushed into this debate, including mine.

Dr. Yarhouse distinguishes homosexuality into three tiers and it allows us to approach homosexuality with the focus on identity rather than on sexuality orientation.  After being enlightened with this innovative framework, I feel much more comfortable with my current understanding of homosexuality, and that I don’t have to compromise my convictions.  However, Yarhouse’s approach does cause one to reconsider whether same-sex attractions are nurtured. The author does not believe a person can be nurtured into a homosexual orientation, which is also what I personally believe.  Moreover, Dr. Yarhouse says that research has not found any real evidence that there is a cause to homosexuality.  Research has not proven that it can be created or nurtured, but as far as I can see, he does not state that it comes from nature either.

In the past, the Christian community have been forced to listen to, what Dr. Yarhouse, calls the “gay script”.  In western society, the “gay script” has been forced upon everyone. It typically says that SSA is natural and God-designed; it is who you really are as a person and is the core of who you are; one’s behavior is merely an extension of that core; and that self-actualization of one’s sexual identity is crucial for one’s fulfillment.  As Christians, we must reject this typical “gay script” and present an alternative script that is compassionate but yet realistic to the facts of SSA.

What I have gained from this eye-opening book is an innovative approach to homosexual orientation using this three-tiered framework. Personally, I have rejected the nurture vs. nature debate because it is fruitless and only leads to never-ending debate.  However, with this new framework, I feel more empowered in dealing with this polarizing issue within the Church.  This is the most balanced approach I have seen.  I believe it will help all Christians, gay or straight, to deal with same-sex attractions and homosexual orientation.   Most importantly, it also challenges Christians to deal with one’s identity, which should be focused on Christ, rather focused on one’s sexual orientation. This is a principle of being stewards of what God has given us, including our sexuality.

This is an excellent book full of nuggets of gold.  After reading this, the reader can no longer hide one’s head in the sand.  The reader will be forced to look at real research and the realities of SSA.  I cannot recommend this book more highly to the entire Christian community.  If I had to pick one, this would be it.  If any Christian is dealing with same-sex attractions, or if a Christian knows someone who is, this will help you gain the knowledge necessary to deal with it.

And thanks from friends at Bethany House for sending me this copy to review.

This is available at: AmazonChristianbook.com

Can small churches be strategically small?

Is your church too big?  Maybe think about downsizing.

What?!  Why would you want to get smaller when churches are thinking of ways of how to grow?  Author Brandon J. O’Brien in his new book, The Strategically Small Church (Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 2010) thinks that small churches have advantages that large churches do not have.  They are more intimate, nimble, more conducive to being authentic, and more effective.

O’Brien likes the idea of being lean and nimble and this is one natural trait of a small church.  Small churches do not think like large churches, which is a natural advantage because when churches become large, people have a tendency to take on a consumer mentality and think of the church as a service provider.  I totally agree because I have also felt this way when I was church-hopping larger churches as a younger person.

Being “authentic” is important for this post-modern youth generation who are trapped in a throw-away, temporary, and materialistic world.  The author says: “Many young worshipers are turned off by over-produced worship music and a speaker who is too polished” (66).  I agree; but why do many large successful churches have polished worship music and speakers? I guess that’s why may be large and filled with people, but some might also be lacking young people in their teens and 20s. There is a falling away of the young generation in many churches. There’s nothing wrong with large churches, as long as “its authenticity shines through its professionalism.”  Along these same lines, O’Brien advises readers to not confuse relevance with trendiness.  “True relevance is being sensitive to the culture or subculture” in which we do our incarnational ministry in our specific location.

I especially like this wisdom on recognizing the benefits of small congregations:
“When a pastor fails to recognize the benefits of the small congregation and insists on running it like a large ministry, he will ultimately undermine and obscure the church’s strengths. Rather than creating a mega ministry, a think-big strategy can destroy the church’s spirit” (73).  He says to “Just be yourself.”  Furthermore, being authentic is not a strategy because once it becomes a strategy, one becomes inauthentic.

The two congregations where I minister are small and so I have personally found this book very helpful and encouraging for me in my own context.  I am sure other pastors of small congregations who might feel limited by small congregations will also be encouraged by his positive outlook on small churches. The author, Brandon J. O’Brien, is editor-at-large of Leadership Journal and is a contributor to the Out of Ur blog.  I’m sure he has gained much insight from the challenges faced by the various pastors who have articles submitted for the Leadership Journal (e.g., Alan Hirsch, Dave Gibbons, Willow Creek). However, O’Brien is not just an editor, but many of his points are qualified because they are insights he has gained from his experience as a pastor.  This is a good book for you if you minister in a small church, or also in a big church, but want to do ministry like a small church.

And thanks to the fine folks at Bethany House for sending me this book to review.  Book available at:  Amazon and CBD.

HCSB Study Bible by Holman

I wish to thank the precious people at LifeWay for sending me a copy of the HCSB Study Bible to review.

Broadman & Holman has entered the study bible market with the new HCSB Study Bible in 2010.  This is a very good study bible.  As a perused through the HCSB Study Bible, I was taken in by its use of color in highlighting of subheadings, study notes, and cross reference verses.  It uses an orangy-tan color to give it that old rustic papyrus look—a tasteful use of color. The various colors give good contrast makes it easier to locate verses.  What makes most other reference bibles inconvenient and difficult to use is when the cross references look like “one big blur” of numbers and verses.  The HCSB-SB’s blue contrasting of verse numbers makes it much easier to locate the verse you are reading.  The solid horizontal yellow bar that highlights the alternate and literal translations acts as a natural page divider.  This breaks the page up so the reader can quickly find the bible text above and the study notes below.  I like this.

The font size of the bible text is reasonable and not too small and is similar to Times New Roman.  The study notes font size is a smaller type of Arial is readable.  The bolded text of key words is good too because it breaks up the “one big blur” factor.  The tan-brown subheadings is easy to read and helps the reader to locate the topic of the biblical text.  In the paper department, the bible paper used is not too thin, which is good. Some study bible paper is so thin that they can tear easily if you’re not careful. The paper in this one is a decent weight.  For a bible that has 2280 pages, it is on the heavier side but it’s not difficult to carry around.

The construction of the HCSB Study Bible is very good because the binding is Smyth-sewn rather than glued so I expect this bible will last a long time. All of the glued bibles are cheap to make and begin to fall apart after the glue dries up.  How can you tell if a bible’s binding is Smyth-sewn or glued?  Lay it flat and if the pages stay flat, then it is likely Smyth-sewn.  A more sure way to tell is by examining the edge of the binding from either the top or bottom view, if you see sections of pages folded into many sections, these sections are sewn together.  If you see some glue, it’s just to tighten it up but not to hold the page together.  However, if all the pages look like they are individually glued directly to the glue (similar to paperbacks), and you don’t see any small sections of folded pages, then you can be sure it’s a cheap glue job.

The text uses a two-column layout.  This is fine for me.  Some people prefer a single-column layout but I’m fine with two-columns.  What is important for me is that the inner biblical quotations (intertextual quotes from other books of the bible) are indented. This helps the reader to know when a passage or verse is being quoted by another biblical writer.  For example, the writer of Hebrews quoted Psalm 95:7-11 in Hebrews 3:7-11.  The quote text from Psalm 95 is bolded in Hebrews. This is a good feature I really like about the HCSB-SB.  I think it is important when you are doing a study or exegeting a passage of text.  A careful exegete-reader wants to easily determine where the inner biblical text originates from.  Moreover, given the good visibility of cross-references, the reader can quickly locate the inner-biblical text.

Another feature that is useful for the exegete-reader is the word study of key words or family of words showing the spelling, pronunciation, and meaning of the 175 Hebrew key words and 133 Greek key words.  It also explains the definition and expands upon how the word is used in other instances in the bible.  If you like AMG Publishers Key Word Study Bible but you’re too lazy to flip pages to really use it to its potential, then you might like this handy feature.

Each book introduction includes circumstances of writing (authorship, background); message and purpose; contribution to the bible; timeline; structure; and outline.
•    There are 18+ hand-drawn color illustrations, plus many more color photos in various places throughout the bible.
•    20 charts, plus many more charts placed throughout.
•    62 maps, plus 8 full-page maps on thick paper in the back of the bible.  In the maps and illustration category, I would say that it is even better than the other major study bibles.

The contributors to the study notes are some of the top evangelical scholars.  These include Ed Blum, Robert Yarbrough, Andreas Kostenberger, Duane Garrett, Walter Kaiser, Tremper Longman III, Carl Anderson, plus many more.  The essays are also contributed by some of the top evangelical scholars George Guthrie, Robert H. Stein,  Mark E. Dever, Daniel B. Wallace, Craig Blomberg, Craig Evans, plus more.

The contributors to the study notes are evangelical first and they seem to be largely from a Baptistic background.  That is very obvious in looking at the list of contributors of the study notes and essays.  I get a very strong impression that the study notes of this study bible are primarily written by Baptists, and secondarily by evangelicals.  If you are Baptist, and prefer a baptistic theology, then this study bible is for you.  Dr. Edwin A. Blum is the general editor of the HCSB, and is the executive editor of the HCSB Study Bible, is not Baptist, but the overall tone of this study bible is still Baptist and conservative evangelical—either dispensationalist and Calvinist.

Will the majority of contributors being Baptists be a barrier for this study bible?  I don’t think so. Most evangelicals are familiar with baptistic theology and we receive Baptists like any other evangelical Christian. On the other hand, if Broadman & Holman wanted the broadest appeal for the HCSB-SB, they might want to broaden their scope of contributors.  There are many other evangelicals other than Baptists, e.g., Wesleyan, Alliance, Pentecostal, Holiness, Nazarene, Ev. Presbyterian, Free Methodist, Mennonite Brethren, Evangelical Free, plus many more.

This is an excellent study bible.  I definitely put this study bible up there in the same league with the ESV Study Bible and NLT Study Bible [added: and Concordia’s Lutheran Study Bible].  Broadman & Holman did a very fine job putting this together.  I am sure this will become one of the premier study bibles as people begin to take more notice of it.

Your Church is Too Small

Zondervan, 2010

Your Church is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ’s Mission is Vital to the Future of the Church
Author: John H. Armstrong
Publisher: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010
ISBN: 9780310321149

First, I wish to thank the good people at Zondervan for sending me this book to review.  This book is likely the challenging book I’ve read this year.  It is a book on the unity of the church.  This book managed to touch on many issues that I have thought about over the years but needed to reflect more deeply about. Thanks John.

John Armstrong, was a church planter adjuncts at Wheaton College Graduate School, and is founder and president of ACT 3, a ministry for equipping leaders for Christ’s mission.  In ch. 2,  Armstrong explains his personal journey into catholicity, beginning with his three conversions, of which I can totally relate with.  He also relates the unity of the church as being vital to God’s mission.  For Armstrong, to best serve Christ’s mission, Christian believers must minister out of spiritual unity and be rooted in core orthodoxy. This is profound for many evangelicals but it is true.  Much of our contemporary evangelical churches have rejected tradition and anything remotely related to tradition.  We tend to view anything old and archaic as a hindrance to the growth of God’s mission in the church.   However, there is a growing trend in new evangelicals of a wind of change.   As in Armstrong,I also used to think of Christian tradition as something as old, archaic, and useless; but today, I have come to love tradition.  I believe it has a valuable part to play in the modern-day church of today.  Armstrong teaches us that we need to embrace tradition if we are to move forward as a church in Christ’s mission.

Why the title?: “Your Church is Too Small?  Armstrong says that our contemporary churches have settled for a small view of the church—divided and fractured—and it has spread like a pandemic across the world.  His thesis is that a “small” view of the church harms the mission of Christ because it spreads the seeds of sectarianism and forces us to choose our enemies and friends based on whether or not we are in complete doctrinal agreement. We need a larger view of the church. Armstrong says: “When core orthodoxy, as represented by the Apostles’ Creed, is not of primary importance, the result will always be a small view of the church” and will be driven by personalities.

Even though I agree with this, it causes me to ask the question if denominationalism is the enemy here.  Can we have denominationalism without sectarianism?  I think the author gives an affirmative answer.  He does believe that diversity is a good thing.  Relational unity is something that many post-modern evangelicals, including myself, can support. What is relational unity?  It is a unity between persons that are rooted in their relationships with one another. This kind of unity is both spiritual and visible.  A visible unity is not necessarily a structurally united church, but it is one that is united in spirit without an organic union.  It is not unanimity, uniformity, nor union.  I like Armstrong’s statement: “This Christ-centered unity is not found in man-made structures or efforts to achieve oneness.  It is the fruit of our nearness to Christ and is modeled on the unity that Christ experienced with the Father.  It is a relational unity, experienced and revealed through shared mission.” (p.64).  The 20th century ecumenical movement failed because it tried to force an agenda based on theological unity, and was even politically fuelled by socialist and liberationist ideologies, says Armstrong.  There was also an absence of evangelicals and Roman Catholics.  Relational unity does not try to unite the church based on theology but on mission.

In coming from an evangelical Reformed background, Armstrong understands that evangelicals tend to be “satisfied with informal person-to-person expressions of oneness.  Because they tend to view the church as a voluntary association, they see no need to seek unity with other churches.”  I think he is right.  Ch. 11 talks briefly about this new ecumenism.  If the future ecumenical movement is to be based on ideology, it will fail again.  The CCT-USA, which includes Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, Charismatics, Evangelicals and Orthodox churches, is the start of a new movement that can give our ecumenical discussions a fresh start.  The World Evangelical Alliance, which gives evangelicals an identity for over 420 million evangelical Christians, can strengthen the missional thrust of evangelicals.  But evangelicals must continue to work with other denominations to further the work of the mission of Christ.

Armstrong does not seem very sympathetic to church splits but I’m a bit more sympathetic.  Due to the hardness of our hearts to accept diversity, these movements and church splits were necessary and healthy; but this is my own view and not that of the author.  Sometimes, the harder we try to hold onto our own doctrine, the weaker the unity becomes.  Our unwillingness to diversify is why we had a Reformation in the 16th century, and the last three great awakenings, and the charismatic movement this century.  Throughout history, the Western Church has blamed the Eastern Church; Roman Catholics have blamed the Reformation; the Church of the Reformation has blamed the Mennonites; Evangelicals have blamed Pentecostals and Charismatics.  Due to the unwillingness to make room for differing views, I believe that some church splits were inevitable and were even necessary to the health of the church.  Today, God can still redeem the church and unite us.

Due to church growth through church-planting, evangelical and pentecostal-charismatic churches remain very much distinct in their diverse denominations.  However, I believe that their distinctiveness have been a natural outcome of growth in evangelical and charismatic churches.  Armstrong sees the pluriform of denominations as a negative thing because he sees no biblical basis for this way of thinking. Well, it may not be biblical but it might have been what actually happened in the first century church.  Church-planting via intentional church splits may have produced some of the largest churches in the world; but the real problem, he says, is that sectarianism creates an attitude of exclusivity.  I would agree with him but I think that church-splits are not the real problem. When this happens, it may also be a symptom of a deeper problem—the problem of not allowing a plurality of theological beliefs, as I mentioned earlier.

I am glad to see the author’s support for catholic diversity.  He states: “I do not believe we have to give up our theological distinctions to pursue unity.  In fact, any pursuit of unity that denies our uniqueness and diversity is not positive…But I believe there is a better way—the pursuit of catholic diversity, a diversity that fosters vitality.” (p. 93).  Catholic diversity: I like this term and he does try to flesh this out a little more in ch.10.  He describes what it is not by describing what sectarianism is.

The ecumenical movement of the 70s and 80s had died, but with Armstrong’s passionate writing in this area, I have learned that perhaps a new ecumenism is arising.  The idea of church unity within young evangelicals might kick-start this.  If what Armstrong suggests is true and “the influence of the fiercest forms of separatism seems to have waned in the last two decades in America” and that younger Christians are tired of it (156), then there is possibly a place for this new ecumenism.  The author sounds optimistic that this is the case and he would suggest that the answer to our ambivalence regarding this possible new direction is to recover classical Christianity in all of its paleo-orthodox forms and that this recovery of classical Christianity must proceed in the context of missional-ecumenism.

This book has been challenging and I am sure it will be so for all readers.  You may get angry and put it down because it can be a bit much for the average evangelical; but if you’re into ecumenism, you will love it and say “amen” to much of what Armstrong has to say.  I am sure that most readers will enjoy this book and gain a bigger view of the larger church.  Our church has been too small for too long.

It is available through: CBD, Amazon, and Zondervan in various formats: electronic, hardcover, and audio

Original Sinners by John R. Coats

Original Sinners: A New Interpretation of Genesis
Author: John R. Coats
Publisher: New York, NY: Free Press, 2009.
ISBN: 9781439102091

Are we any different from the biblical characters of Cain, Noah or Jacob? I would say “no.” We’re no different from them. We are all equal offenders just the same. The purpose of this book is to show how the biblical characters of Genesis are not any different from us. Their lives mirror our own. If I may borrow this term, we are all “original sinners”, just like the biblical characters of Genesis were. Some may not find comfort in this fact, but I find comfort in that I am no different from Cain, Abraham, Noah, Jacob or Joseph. Not that I would use their sins to justify my own sins—not at all. The point of it all is that God’s grace shown to them is also shown to us sinners too. That is where the comfort of grace comes in this book.

The author of Original Sinners is John R. Coats, a former Episcopal priest who was raised a Southern Baptist. All though the book may be about his interpretation of Genesis, I have found his stories sometimes more engaging and interesting than his interpretation of the biblical characters. For me personally, the author’s interpretations of Genesis are secondary; moreover, it is meant for the non-theological reader. If you are looking for an academic-like interpretation of Genesis, I would suggest looking elsewhere because this book almost reads like a story book or a compendium of his life’s challenging moments. Coat’s personal stories place his interpretation of Genesis into context, or vice versa. Actually, I think his interpretations of Genesis also function to place his life’s stories into context as well.

My criticism of this book is that, at times, I have found it difficult to follow his account of the biblical characters because he jumps back and forth between his personal stories about life and the biblical characters of Genesis. The book’s methodology of organization requires the reader to already be fully in-tune with the psyche of the biblical character at hand; otherwise, the reader may have to read twice in order to see the connection between the two. My other criticism with this approach is that the author may try hard to make a connection with his life and the biblical character. Sometimes, there is a strong connection, and sometimes, the connection may not be as strong as it could be. This way of organization, and therefore, of reading, may be more time-consuming but it does add an element of real-life context to each of the characters.

Anyway, the stories in the book are interesting. In one example, he shares some very personal stories like his tiff with his daughter about her use of the cell phone and his shock when he got the bill. He felt their relationship was breaking apart. Coats relates this story with Yahweh’s confrontation with Cain and the sin of murdering his brother Abel. At first, I had trouble making the connection, but I finally got it. He was making the comparison between Yahweh’s fight-ending knockout punch, and his heated fight with his daughter in the car.

All in all, this was an interesting read about one’s bouts with life’s challenges, which has helped me to reflect upon my own challenges of life. It has helped me to see that I’m not much different from the biblical characters myself. I also wish to thank Free Press (Simon & Schuster) for sending me this review copy.

Commentary on James (BECNT) by Dan G. McCartney

James (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament)
Author: Dan G. McCartney
Publisher: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009.
ISBN: 9780901026768

I wish to thank the good folks at Baker Academic (Div. of Baker Publishing Group) for sending me this copy to review.

Professor Dr. Dan G. McCartney has authored this great new commentary on James (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series).  He is the professor of New Testament interpretation at Redeemer Theological Seminary; and had been at Westminster Theological Seminary for over 25 years.

James is a curious character for me because this letter was questioned by Martin Luther as to whether or not it should be in the canon of the bible.  Some biblical scholars have questioned the canonicity of the book of James even though Luther never questioned James’ authorship, but just his content, or lack of important content.  It is only later that some scholars had come to critique the letter’s authenticity.    It is peculiar that the words “Christ” and “Jesus” are never mentioned. For a biblical author to never mention this is indeed a cause for curiosity, and this fact alone can give place to a legitimate argument for this letter’s questionable canonicity.  Dan McCartney notes that James:

  • evinces no concern for ecclesial authority or structure;
  • the importance of the substitutionary death of Christ receives no mention;
  • there is no cultic identification with Christ;
  • no discussion of how the inclusion of Gentiles affects theology; and
  • no reflection on how Christ fulfilled O.T. expectations.

I think is possible that during the early church, which faced extreme persecution, tried to keep their fellowship hidden underground.  I’m not sure if many biblical scholars considered this fact when they question the canonicity of some biblical books, especially that of the book of James.

The argument of about who the audience may not be as important as who the figure of James was. Perhaps this is why McCartney expends more ink on the topic of James’ authorship.  James is supposed by many scholars to be a highly educated Hellenistic Jew, or perhaps, a Gentile convert. Only given such a background could one write such a letter.  Here are some curious facts about James:

  • It contains some Semitic idioms grounded in the Jewish scriptures (e.g., “double-minded”).  Furthermore, his use of idioms, says McCartney, are very different from Greek but very much like Semitic style (e.g., 1:17 “shadow of turning”, 2:4 “judges of evil opinion”, or 3:6 “world of unrighteousness”)
  • Use of words by those of Jewish background (e.g., 3:6 “gehenna”, 2:2 “synagogue”)

Regarding use of phrases that at first seem to evoke Greek rather than Jewish literature, McCartney states: “such use has more the appearance of an “outsider” to a culture borrowing the terms but ignoring their “insider” connotations.  This is exactly what we would expect of a Palestinian Jewish Christian who was competent in Greek and who was familiar with the Hellenistic cultic milieu while also being critical of it.”  In a similar line of thought, and for comparison’s sake, I’ll offer the example of my own experience.  I am a Canadian with a Chinese ethnic background but who has been mostly educated in the English language, rather than, the Chinese language context.  Likewise, James was a citizen of Palestine and born in Palestine with a probable Jewish ethnic background but who was also highly educated in the Greek language within a Hellenistic context rather than a Jewish context.  This milieu of multicultural diversity broadens a person’s understanding.   This is evident in the letter of James.

The authorship of the book of James could have been either:

  • James the son of Zebedee, brother of John, who was killed by Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12:2);
  • James the son of Alphaeus, one of the Twelve;
  • James the Younger; or
  • James, Jesus’ brother (Acts 12:17, Gal. 1:19) (which also poses a problem for the Catholic doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity)

Regarding James, the Lord’s brother, one external biblical source is from Josephus.  However, the validity of his commentary has been doubted due to possible additions written by Christian scribes.  McCartney notes that another outside source, Hegesippus’ account of James has tried to harmonize the story of James’s death found in Josephus with that from Clement of Alexandria.

If James was the brother, or even half-brother, of Jesus, the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity will be put on the spotlight.  However, Jerome claimed that the Greek word adelphos (or brother) could have also meant “cousin” or a member of the broader family network, at least up until the time of the Protestant Reformation.  Augustine and Roman Catholic scholars support this view. I could also support this view because I have been called a “brother” by friends, and by spiritual brothers in Christ.  The question of who James is still asked by many New Testament biblical scholars of James.  This question may never be answered until some future manuscripts are uncovered at some timely hour. I think it would be very interesting if it was discovered that James was the brother of Jesus.  That would definitely paint an interesting picture of the theology of Jesus himself—a law-oriented and moralistic Jesus?  God forbid.

Slightly related to this topic is another important issue concerning James.  Was James written as a response to Paulinism? If James was written before the time of the Apostle Paul, one should address the question of whether or not Pauline theology was a reaction to the moralisms of James.  On the other hand, if this letter was already in existence during the time of St. Paul and was known to him during the time of the Apostle Paul, it does cause me to wonder if Paul may have reacted to this letter of James.  This would also depend upon how widely known the teachings of James were within the early church.  Due to our popular Reformational-thinking, scholars most often seem to assume that the letter of James was a reaction to Pauline theology, rather than the other way around.  McCartney states: “Most scholars who view James as a reaction see it more as a reaction to a later development of Paul’s thinking than to Paul himself” (p.53).  I like his suggestion of Dunn’s strong position: ‘that what is reflected here is a controversy within Judaism—between that stream of Jewish Christianity which was represented by James at Jerusalem on the one hand, and the Gentile churches or Hellenistic  Jewish Christians who had been decisively influenced by Paul on the other’ (p. 54). If James is only read on its own terms rather than as a reaction to Paul or Paulinism, what fun would that be?

Such questions are widely entertained by N.T. scholars and we may never find an answer to this unless new manuscripts or extra-biblical documents surface.  If so, has Paul’s teachings on justification been misunderstood? If so, James may have wanted to provide a corrective in this letter.  We may find ourselves obsessed with defending against the issue that so defines evangelicals and the churches of the Reformation—that faith must never be dependent upon works.  Author, Dan McCartney, does not believe that James is addressing the issue of Paulinism.  He states:

“…the Gospels give plenty of indication that Jesus constantly encountered Jews who, though they paid lip service to the law, failed to perceive and practice its priorities.  The kinds of works of faith that both James and Jesus propound are things such as showing no favouritism, caring for the destitute, showing mercy, avoiding judgmentalism, and the like…. James’s true target is neither the Pauline notion of justification by faith nor even a perversion of it; rather, it is the endemic and widespread problem of hypocrisy” (p.36).

Given McCartney’s position, I do not know if he is would agree with the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), but it certainly would support this similar issue in NPP.  The author states that “even if James is addressing a purely Jewish audience, there is no reason why James’s diatribe against ‘faith without works’ has to be a reaction to Paul or a misunderstanding of Paul.  It could very well be simply another echo of the teachings of Jesus” (p.55).  This is very likely because James, who likely had a Jewish outlook, was also acculturated into the Hellenic world.  McCartney reasons this saying: “Thus, as a good preacher who ‘stands between two worlds,’ applying Scripture (the OT and Jesus’ teaching) to a world different from that in which Scripture (both the OT and Jesus’ teaching) was originally given, James speaks the wisdom of God using the forms, imagery, and rhetorical devices of Hellenism” (p.56).  His rationale makes total sense.  He positions himself in support of James being someone who “seeks to evoke from those who claim to have faith the kind of behaviour that manifests faith.” Maybe it is simply the admonition of practical behaviour, rather than an overly-complicated theological argument that we’ve made it to be.

There are so many issues that could be discussed in this post but I’m limited to space. I’ve enjoyed reviewing this commentary because McCartney has touched on many important issues. I would recommend this commentary on James to anyone who wishes to take a closer look at the various questions raised by biblical scholars.  The author certainly covers many here in this great addition to the BECNT commentary series.